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Reviewed by:
  • Gregory the Great
  • Carole Straw
Gregory the Great. By John Moorhead. [The Early Church Fathers 14.] (London and New York: Rutledge, Taylor and Francis Group. 2005. Pp. 177.)

This is the fourteenth volume in an important introductory series designed to make available in translation key selections from the writings of the major Fathers of the Early Church. The series already includes excellent editions by distinguished scholars such as Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (on Ambrose), Anthony Meredith, S.J. (on Gregory of Nyssa), and Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen (on John Chrysostom), who have offered thoughtful and substantial introductions to the Fathers' lives and works along with their translations.

The strength of this edition lies in Moorhead's mellifluous translations, unrivaled in their lyricism and immediacy. He shuns technical terminology about the soul (e.g., compunctio is "remorse"; discretio is "discernment," etc.), instead offering familiar translations that make the text warm and accessible. Moorhead also translates dense passages with a light touch. Gregory uses various parallelisms and equations in his writing—inversions, oppositions, reversals, tanto-quanto correlatives, etc.—that give his prose a mathematical quality bordering on the obsessive. Moorhead succeeds in communicating the intricate structure of such passages gracefully, without losing the reader in a maze of mirrors and sing-song rhythms. Moorhead gives us a Gregory who is humane, sensitive, and simpatico.

Given Moorhead's keen sense of language, it is not surprising that he sees Gregory primarily as the preacher and exegete. His first section, "The Bible," is the most technical and recherché, containing long (and at times complicated) passages on principles of biblical interpretation taken from Gregory's homilies on Ezekiel. In "Sermons to the People," the next section, Moorhead chooses Homiliae xl in Euangelia 2.24 and 2.40 to illustrate that the Bible serves as a means of teaching doctrine, in these cases, the resurrection. Both sermons show the preacher "pitching his message to the audience" (p. 69; cf. pp. 15, 29).

Moorhead credits Gregory with being a keen psychologist; and the next chapter, "Human Types," begins with Moralia 7.28.34–35, on sin, followed by Pastoral Care 3.2–4.1, where preachers offer various rebukes, determined by whether the sinner is young or old, poor or rich, happy or sad, servant or master, [End Page 273] arrogant or timid, male or female. This passage stands by itself, requiring no special understanding of Gregory to be comprehensible. In being immediately accessible, it may be the most useful selection in the book. In his final section, "Morals on Job," Moorhead translates some very interesting passages from the end of the Moralia, which show Gregory's "understanding of the human condition, the ways he understood the Bible, and the moralizing bent of his thinking" (p. 129).

Although Moorhead recognizes Gregory's active side as ruler and administrator, he does not broach Gregory's letters, explaining that the difference between Gregory's personal letters and the form letters of his notaries is difficult to discern. Moorhead also omits Gregory's Dialogues, perhaps because the most famous book of the Dialogues (on St. Benedict) is readily available in translation. These are understandable choices, but it is unfortunate that Moorhead does not follow other editors in the series and provide introductions to his various selections. (Instead, he supplies a few prefatory sentences.) In other editions, these introductions are invaluable, guiding the reader to appreciate more fully the significance of the selections. With Gregory, such introductions might draw the reader's attention to important imagery and ideas (such as God's disciplinary beatings [flagella dei], or Rachel and Leah as symbols of contemplative and active lives). One might trace connections (such as how the Church, like Christ, triumphs through suffering), as well as explain the significance of characteristic themes (such as Gregory's insistence that the powerful be inwardly humble, or his conviction that penance must be supererogatory). In letting the passages speak for themselves, Moorhead misses the opportunity to illuminate Gregory's thought.

While Moorhead's superb translations are a fine contribution to the series, to gain footing in Gregorian studies, readers will be best served by including additional resources. Given its comprehensiveness, Robert Gillet's...


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